Lessons from 2020: The year digital transformation and remote workforce digitisation was fast-tracked
It’s difficult to talk about 2020 without mentioning the C word. Thanks to the global pandemic, words and phrases like lockdown, social distancing, and “you’re on mute” have all become a part of our daily language. However, the coronavirus has changed far more than just the way we talk; it’s radically changed our whole way of life, in particular the way we work and our use of technology.
As companies worked quickly to implement work from home policies and keep their businesses running, traditional methods of managing remote workforces had to be replaced with digital alternatives. Digital transformation went from being a buzzword to a necessity.
What are the results of this digital transformation, both short-term and long-term? How can companies ensure a successful implementation? What effect have these changes had on our mental health?
We reached out to the top digital transformation experts in their industry to bring you the answers and help you prepare for what the future holds.
Digital transformation across multiple industries
It’s difficult to imagine an industry that hasn’t been affected by the pandemic, and digital transformation has been widely accepted as the solution. However, digital transformation means more than just handing out laptops.
“Just working the same way as in the office but now at home is not digitisation.” Tony Morrison, Senior Change Consultant at AMEO Professional Services
Companies that fall into the trap of simply throwing technology at staff can expect to see reduced productivity. Instead, companies need to invest in their staff, providing proper training and strategic deployment if their digital transformation is going to succeed. Thankfully, a lot of today’s technology is more intuitive, and in most cases can be readily used by anyone with the ability to operate a smartphone. However, companies will still need to take steps to ensure all staff understand any changes, along with the reason for the changes.
Face-to-face interactions became a casualty of the lockdown, as instructing, brainstorming, and troubleshooting in person became near-impossible. Communication, both between staff and customers, has radically changed. In the workplace, this meant more trust and less micro-management.
Even industries that are traditionally perceived as ‘non-digital’ have had to rapidly adapt and deploy digital solutions. Alex Winchester (Director of Strategic Improvement at Skanska) explained that one of the biggest challenges facing the construction industry is reaching an agreed standard. Implementing a digital transformation strategy can bring strong benefits, but only if the rest of the supply chain is adopting similar strategies with the same standards. “Effortless exchange of information is yet to come”.
One way technology can help improve the flow of information is by providing end-to-end oversight of your processes and procedures. For example, some companies have benefited by implementing a workflow that automatically assigns and tracks QR codes on stock items. By being able to see at a glance not only what’s in your warehouse, but where it is, when it came in, and when it needs to go out.
The pandemic has caused a revolution, rather than evolution. Out of necessity, decisions that would normally take months or even years of planning were made in days. As a result, companies need to make sure that the strategies that got them through lockdown are the right strategies going forward. As Ben Cummins (Managing Director at Qwest Services) puts it: “We need the right solution, not the solution for right now.”
While digital transformation has undoubtedly become more popular, it’s still misunderstood by many. According to Elli Morris (Director at GroupNexus), true digital transformation is more than just adapting to unusual circumstances. Rather, it’s something that fundamentally impacts the strategy of a business. For example, switching to remote work out of necessity doesn’t mean you have a strong digital transformation strategy. Instead, companies need to have a discussion around innovation. They need to go deeper and examine their processes. Can they be improved by going digital? Can they be automated? Are they even still necessary?
“The corporate world will look back at this as the moment where there was a seismic shift in our thinking and our approach.” Dee Sethi, Head of Product at Ground Control
While many companies are operating in survival mode right now, long-term success will mean companies invest in their digital transformation programme now. By implementing cost-saving solutions that make use of the latest technology now, companies stand to benefit long-term. “You have to be in a data-rich environment. It’s the data that tells you everything. It’s monitoring good things and bad things, giving you those trends you need to look at.” Darrin Witcher, Manufacturing Director at Elliott
Either way, it will take more time to see the full results and identify the true winners and losers.
Looking forward, there’s an opportunity for more purpose-built solutions. As Alexis Assimacopoulos (Senior OD Specialist at Bechtel Corporation) puts it, we’re all still working in 2D; the future is 3D. “I can’t wait for AR and virtual sessions.” As technology improves, it’s important to keep an eye on the latest advancements and see how we can use them to innovate and maintain a competitive advantage.
With more people using technology to work from home, one question keeps coming up: do we actually need face-to-face anymore?
Have we seen the end of the office?
As offices around the world stood empty, working from home became a part of our daily lives. While there were initial concerns about how work performance would be affected, many soon found they were able to be more productive. Suddenly, employees were wondering why they had wasted so much time commuting for hours. Businesses wondered why they were paying so much for office space and other related overheads. Could this be the end of the office as we know it?
It seems that everyone agrees that, to one extent or another, remote work is here to stay. Innovative tech businesses such as Twitter, Facebook and Google are already making allowances for remote work indefinitely. But, as Dee Sethi explains, not every company is at that level. It’s unlikely that this will be replicated across more traditional legacy industries, especially those that rely on a physical command centre. For some businesses, a physical presence is still a necessity, such as public sector services that require physical locations for their field workers. However, with the right technology, businesses can still adapt by digitally transforming their systems and work environments, allowing them to work more efficiently.
Even where a job can be carried out remotely, some workers flourish in an office environment free from the distractions that come with working from home. Others have found that working from home has taken a toll on their mental health and well-being, and would prefer the option of returning to the office. Businesses that benefit from a diverse group of minds for innovation and problem-solving, collaborating and interacting face-to-face is required. In many cases, the benefits companies discovered while working from home—such as lean meetings and faster decision-making—can be transferred to the office environment.
Still, the majority of people seem to prefer the benefits of working from home. Research from IBM found that 75% of employees would like to continue working remotely at least occasionally, while 54% would like remote work to be their primary way of working. Many employers will likely share this attitude, thanks to the many advantages they’ve enjoyed. For example, DEFRA saw a 20% increase in productivity over the last six months. Decision making has been quicker. Alexei Burns (Chief of Staff for group procurement at Centrica) pointed out that when employees are working home, they have an incentive to be more efficient with their time, rather than dragging out tasks to fill their 9-5.
So, is this the end of the office? According to Alex Winchester, the future of the office in your industry will depend largely on why you have an office. If it’s merely to house workers, the pandemic has demonstrated that it’s no longer necessary. In cases like this, companies can benefit from allowing remote work to continue indefinitely, or alternatively adopting a hybrid approach, with hot-desk solutions that allow businesses and their employees to get the best of both worlds.
Going forward, we can expect the majority of the workforce to stay working from home. Dee Sethi compares it to how finances have changed, moving from the exchange of physical cash to digital transfers. In the same way, work will fundamentally change, moving from the physical locations to an invisible transfer of services.
The challenge today is making digital more human.
Success factors for digitisation
While it will be a while before we can say with any real certainty who will succeed long-term with digital transformation, there are a number of steps companies can take to improve their results.
In our interviews, we found that the companies who had successfully implemented digital transformation strategies were those that were already investing in it long before anyone had heard of coronavirus. These companies were aware that technology and software can be used to automate and optimise regularly repeated job processes, making them more efficient and cost effective. They recognised the benefits of digital transformation and were already several years into their planned implementation. COVID-19 just sped up the process.
But what if you’re still in the early stages of a digital transformation programme? It can be a daunting process that, initially at least, raises more questions. Is it better to replace your old traditional legacy system completely and start from scratch? Or is it better to ‘bolt on’ digital processes to your existing setup, minimising that initial disruption but potentially missing out on the biggest benefits?
Either way, a successful implementation must inspire confidence, with buy-in at a leadership level that is felt throughout the business. As George Gerring (Program Director at The Water Hub) explains, digital transformation is about more than just technology. It has to translate into the culture and purpose of the business. “Otherwise, it’s just a knee-jerk reaction.”
That cultural change means keeping your workforce engaged. Some will naturally be enthusiastic, but others will be sceptical. They may have had bad experiences with so-called solutions in the past. As a result, it’s critical to involve them in the process and listen to their feedback. Help them understand the benefits of building digital into your processes, rather than simply bolting it on. Neil Irving (Digital Construction Specialist at BAM Nuttall Ltd) recommends helping employees see how the digital transformation can solve their problems, then gradually introducing it without changing too much of their day to day activity.
For Alex Winchester, there are two important factors that govern how successful your digital transformation programme will be. Simplicity and demand.
The simpler your programme is, the more likely it is to be adopted. If, on the other hand, it requires a big change programme with extensive training and education, don’t be surprised when your teams start putting their own workarounds in.
Likewise, if there’s no demand, it won’t take off. For example, remote work is nothing new. We’ve had the capability for years, but it’s been more associated with Instagram influencers than the general workforce. The pandemic changed that. Now everyone wants remote work, and we’re catching up with what’s possible. “The sad thing is we could have got here a lot earlier… it took a global pandemic to force us to catch up and realise what was already in front of us.”
With those factors in mind, it’s important that companies are investing in digital transformation, rather than simply patching up their existing infrastructure. Those that don’t invest risk getting swallowed up. Alexis Assimacopoulos points out that we’ll need more fit-for-purpose tech as the way we work changes: “We’re doing a lot more than just emailing on our laptops now.”
To successfully implement digital transformation, companies need to examine their previous ideas about work and look for ways to truly transform their processes.
“Let’s start to understand the art of the possible” Ian Stevenson, Head of off-site Operations at Mitie
Addressing mental health issues with IT
One of the biggest concerns we found in our research was mental health. 80% of respondents specifically mentioned mental health as a key area that’s been affected by digital transformation, and something that businesses need to consider moving forward. It’s clear that digital transformation can have a massive effect on our mental health, both positively and negatively.
40% of employees are working longer hours at home than they would in the office. This leads to more time spent staring at screens and the breakdown of the boundaries between work and home.
The pandemic has brought about a behavioural change, changing the way we communicate. On one hand, video conferencing has many advantages when done correctly. Whereas emails—with all the humanity seemingly stripped out of the message—may be misread, Alex Winchester finds that a video call can reassure and calm workers who are already under pressure.
However, video conferencing often comes with a higher intensity. Some people have even suffered from Zoom burnout and ended up feeling overwhelmed. Certain personality types are struggling more, without the feedback and environment that they’re used to.
To prevent these serious issues, employees should be able to take breaks from these platforms. Rather than sitting in high-intense calls all the time, companies should make time for colleagues to have meaningful conversations with each other. This might mean fewer hour-long meetings, and instead encouraging a more transparent approach. Christopher Parsons (Procurement Transformation Manager at BT) recommends creating ‘knowledge banks’, resources where staff can look up common questions without having to jump on a call every time they have a query. For George Gerring, this doesn’t mean replacing human interaction, but “augmenting and adding value where that can’t take place in the office.”
According to Tony Morrison, this requires leaders to adapt their style and take on more of a coaching role, recognising when people may be suffering from exhaustion. That might mean providing equipment, whether that’s a comfortable chair or a bigger monitor, to reduce stress and enable your teams to work more effectively. Dee Sethi’s company, Ground Control, provided a meditation app, free of charge, for all its employees.
Still, leaders recognise that no amount of hardware and software replace taking an active interest in the individual. Managers need to make time to have one-to-one conversations with their employees, to check up on them and determine any issues they may be struggling with. They may be able to set up support groups, such as parents who are working from home, where they can freely discuss their issues.
“We need to connect as people, not just as colleagues.” Alexis Assimacopoulos
2020 has been a challenging year for everyone, and many businesses have struggled. However, those who’ve invested in digital transformation have seen clear benefits.
By enabling teams to work from home effectively and involving them in the process, they’ve been able to maintain high levels of productivity, while still caring for their team’s mental health.
Thanks again to all of the experts who contributed their time and insights to this article.
Are you wondering what the new opportunities around digital transformation might be for your business 2021? Get in touch and we can share examples to inspire your innovation plans.